How to work with a colleague who lacks self-awareness

Success in your job requires plenty of interpersonal skills. One important ability is to work cohesively with different kinds of people—even those who are challenging. One of the toughest personalities is the person who thinks they’re the smartest person in the room.

Unfortunately, the competitive nature of the work environment can breed behaviors where people try to constantly one-up others. This makes sense when rewards are scarce. There is likely only one person who can nab a highly-coveted position, and only a finite number of promotions each year.

But even if you’re working with someone who fails to give others space when sharing ideas (or even undermines others), you can find ways to work with them successfully. Here are a few ways to work coworkers who lack self-awareness.

Consider motivations

When you consider the source, you’re looking deeper at a perplexing action so you can grasp its real meaning. Sometimes, people behave with arrogance not because they are supremely confident, but because they are insecure. People may be trying to prove themselves because they think it will get them ahead at work.

Rather than putting them in their place by blatantly telling your coworker, “you’re not so smart,” try a different tact. You can offset your colleague’s behavior by reinforcing them and validating their contribution. When they have a good idea, express your appreciation. When they bring up a point, build on it and use it to move the discussion along. Ask them questions and seek out their opinion. You’ll want to do these things in a genuine way—rather than a manipulative way. By tuning into the value they bring and reinforcing it, you may be able to dissipate their arrogance.

Tap into reserves of confidence

Sometimes, working with someone who’s aiming to be the smartest person in the room can wreak havoc with your sense of confidence. Avoid letting someone full of bluster steal your thunder and make you question your own level of expertise. In order to work well with others, you need to feel good about your own contribution.

Remind yourself of all you bring to your distinct position and embrace your unique talents. Validating yourself through a list of your strengths can help pull you out of a comparison trap.

Your challenging teammate may excel in the technical parts of a new contract, but you may shine when it comes to the development of customer relationships. Alternatively, your colleague who is brilliant with coming up with fresh ideas shows a gap in how they bring their concepts to life; conveniently, this may be one of your strengths. When you feel knowledgeable and confident in your abilities, your frustration with the egotistical colleague may subside.

Stand your ground

Another critical skill in working with the person who is egocentric is finding a way to get your point across. Oftentimes, loud, abrasive personalities at work can shirk away from a real challenge. Consider these colleagues like the arrogant bullies from the schoolyard: all bark and no bite.

The best balance is, of course, expressing your ideas in a constructive way, where everyone gets to contribute their perspective. For instance, your coworkers may have made a strong case for an innovating new version of your product, and you have an equally inventive idea. There is nothing wrong in expressing your original idea, even if your colleague demonstrates high confidence in their idea. And if you do present your idea, be open to debating the pros and cons and finding a way to meet in the middle.

You can also be direct and constructive. “Let’s find out what others think,” or “Before we close on this, let’s hear from others on the call.” When you can make space for plenty of opinions, your team as a whole will benefit from the diversity of voices.

Let it go

If you’ve tried everything and your colleague is still demonstrating a lack of self-awareness, it may be time to try to release this mental occupation.

Avoid letting them get under your skin, and remember that whatever receives your focus, tends to expand. Don’t fixate on how much they frustrate you.

Instead, keep your distance and reorient your thoughts toward something else. This may be the best time to distract yourself by focusing on your work projects or try turning your energy toward more challenging tasks. So, if you fixate on this person or how they frustrate you, chances are your anxiety will build. Instead, keep your distance from the person as much as you can, and try not to think about them. Distract yourself with all the other priorities and tasks which can occupy your attention at work.

However your coworker behaves, try your best to deal with it in a thoughtful and respectful manner. Positive behaviors beget more positive behaviors. Moreover, humans tend to mirror others, thereby taking on their behaviors and feeling what they feel. This is a powerful phenomenon, made more powerful and team-friendly when everyone shares their most significant ideas. When everyone shares their brilliance, it can create a more appreciative company culture.

And if the above methods fail to get through to a self-absorbed colleague, patience can be your secret weapon. It’s not uncommon for colleagues to abruptly change companies or abandon their jobs for new industries. Therefore, working with any one coworker doesn’t have to feel like a career-long nuisance. In time, they may be out the door.

In some cases, the actual “work” of the workplace comes down to dealing with the challenging personalities around you. Regardless of the people you interact with, take the opportunity to learn. From teammates who glaringly lack certain characteristics, you can learn what workplace behaviors to avoid. And similarly, from talented colleagues, you can learn ways to continually get better.


Tracy Brower, PhD, is a sociologist focused on work-life happiness and fulfillment. She works for Steelcase, and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.

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